Tell No Tales
Monday August, 5 2019 at 09:00 AM
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You can search any list of the outstanding films of the legendary 1939 movie year, but you won't find this black-and-white mystery-thriller, which clocks in at just over an hour and features only one name star, Melvyn Douglas, in its large cast. Give this a chance, however, and you'll find a fast, crackling story full of some very affecting vignettes and performances by a number of character actors and supporting players working at the top of their game. It's no Gone With the Wind, of course, but there's much to be said for the appeal of Douglas, who may have never reached the greatest heights of Hollywood stardom but was always an actor capable of memorable work in his busy 50-year career.
In one of five pictures he made in 1939 (including Ninotchka opposite Garbo), Douglas plays the editor of a big-city newspaper who comes into possession of a marked hundred-dollar bill used as part of a ransom payment. He methodically follows the money trail to crack the kidnapping case and save his ailing paper in the bargain. Beyond the actual solving of the mystery, the odyssey-like plot holds major interest through the glimpses it offers into the lives of the people who unwittingly handled the bill before passing it on. The investigation leads Douglas to a wedding, backstage at a police benefit, into the home of a fashionable elderly physician with an unfaithful young trophy wife, and in the most compelling of the scenes, a seedy nightclub used for the wake of a prizefighter who paid his doctor bill with the C-note before he died.
The cast includes performers with less-than-glamorous names that may not be familiar--Gene Lockhart, Douglas Dumbrille, Halliwell Hobbes, Sara Haden, Hobart Cavanaugh--but faces that any classic movie fan will recognize. Among them, too, is Theresa Harris, one of Hollywood's fine African-American actresses so often confined to maid roles. As Ruby, the prizefighter's widow, she reveals herself to be a maid by trade, but her appearance here, brief as it is, gives her far more to work with than the stereotype usually allowed.
Douglas' leading lady may also be a familiar face. Louise Platt is best known as the pregnant army wife in one of the films that does make the list of the year's best, John Ford's Stagecoach (1939). Platt made her last feature film in 1942, returning to the stage for a time and resurfacing on television a decade later, where she appeared occasionally until 1963, forty years before her death.
Although some reviewers today find the glossy MGM style to be out-of-synch with the crackling dialogue by Lionel Houser, most critics, then and now, praised the work of Leslie Fenton, who made his feature film directing debut here after helming a handful of shorts. English-born Fenton (1902-1978) was brought to the U.S. as a child and in his late teens went to Hollywood to break into the movies. He appeared in such films as What Price Glory (1926), The Public Enemy (1931), and Boys Town (1938), his final acting job. His directing career was brief and included the Hitler-youth-in-America tale Tomorrow, the World! (1944) with Fredric March and two Alan Ladd pictures, Saigon (1948) and Whispering Smith (1948). He retired from the industry in 1951.
Tell No Tales is also notable for its cinematographer, Joseph Ruttenberg, a multiple Oscar-winner for The Great Waltz (1938), Mrs. Miniver (1942), Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), and Gigi (1958), in addition to six other nominations. His career began in 1917 and ended with the Elvis Presley movie Speedway (1968), after which he retired. Along the way, he also shot The Philadelphia Story (1940), Woman of the Year (1942), and Gaslight (1944).
The working title of the film was "A Hundred to One."
Director: Leslie Fenton
Producer: Edward Chodorov
Screenplay: Lionel Houser, based on a story by Pauline London and Alfred Taylor
Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg
Editing: W. Donn Hayes
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Original Music: William Axt
Cast: Melvyn Douglas (Michael Cassidy), Louise Platt (Ellen Frazier), Gene Lockhart (Arno), Douglas Dumbrille (Matt Cooper), Florence George (Lorna Travers), Theresa Harris (Ruby)
By Rob Nixon